Omega-3 fatty acids: are supplements truly necessary for optimal brain health?

Greater intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is associated with decreased risk of brain disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and cardiovascular disease.1-3 DHA is a crucial factor in early brain development because it is a major constituent of cell membranes in the brain, retina, and nervous system. There is significant evidence in the fossil record that a increase in DHA availability in the diet of early humans was responsible for the expansion of the brain into the large, complex organ it has now become.4,5 DHA requirements are the greatest in the developing brain during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first two years of life. During early life, a baby’s only source of this building block of brain and eye tissue is its mother’s milk.6,7 Several studies have documented improved cognitive scores in breastfed infants compared to formula-fed infants, prompting supplementation of infant formula with DHA in the U.S.8 But what if the “normal” amount of DHA in American women’s breast milk is still not enough? What if the developing brain requires more DHA for optimal cognitive development?

A recent study compared the fatty acid content of breast milk in American women in Cincinnati to that of Tsimane women of Bolivia. Tsimane women eat a traditional diet of primarily locally grown plant foods, wild-caught animals, and freshwater fish. The results of the study showed that the DHA concentration of Tsimane mothers’ milk was 400% higher than that of Cincinnati mothers, their concentration of linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid abundant in oils) was 84% lower, and their concentration of trans fat was 260% lower than in Cincinnati mothers.9,10 In a previous analysis, pooling data from 84 studies of breast milk DHA concentrations in many different countries, the U.S. concentrations fell below the worldwide average. The areas with the highest breast milk DHA concentrations were coastal or island nations, suggesting that breast milk DHA concentration is closely linked to the consumption of fish.11

Our modern eating habits have transformed the fatty acid distribution of our diet.12 One of the study’s authors, Steven Gaulin, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, noted "The American diet is eroding one of the most important benefits breast milk can provide –– fats that are critical to infant brain development. It's not surprising that, among developed nations, American children are last on international tests of math and science."9

What is the “normal” DHA of content of human breast milk – or rather, the amount that will ideally support brain development in infants? We don’t know for sure. However, these huge differences between a traditional diet and a modern diet, and the high DHA concentrations in high fish-consuming countries indicate that the DHA intake of Americans may be sub-optimal for supporting brain health. The American diet is low in DHA, and high in vegetable oils and trans fats, which limit the elongation of ALA from plant foods into DHA and EPA, and displaces omega-3 fats from cell membranes.4,13 Factory-farmed meats, oils and trans fats are not the appropriate fatty fuel to grow a baby’s brain.

Does this mean that we should eat fish? From the evidence we have now, if you eat with a modern diet (even without oils) and you don’t eat fish regularly, it is almost impossible to have adequate DHA stores, especially for pregnant and nursing women.

Avoiding oils and eating plenty of hemp, chia, flax, walnuts, and leafy greens is likely still not enough, since the conversion rate of ALA (short-chain omega-3) in these foods to DHA (long-chain omega-3) is very low. Large increases in ALA intake have been shown to produce only very slight increases in long-chain omega-3 blood levels. Plus, much of the ALA we consume is burned for energy, not converted to DHA or EPA.14,15

However, modern fish is a heavily polluted food that I do not recommend eating regularly. The DHA in fish may benefit the brain, but the fatty tissues of fish is highly contaminated with mercury, and other pollutants, which could be toxic to the brain and may also contribute to cardiovascular disease.16,17 In addition to the potential effects of mercury on human health, huge declines in wild fish populations have been reported since the 1950s, and populations continue to decline as the purported benefits of fish consumption on heart and brain health increase the demand for fish and fish oils.18 Fish is not an ideal source of DHA; fortunately DHA derived from lab-grown algae is available as a supplement.

One can't really be sure they have ideal levels of omega-3 anymore without supplements. If you eat enough fish to idealize your omega-3 ratio, you get too much mercury, dioxin, and other pollutants. I think it is sensible and conservative to err on the side of caution and eat a diet that contains ALA from flax, chia, walnuts and leafy greens, not merely because of their ALA content, but also for their anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Then adding a supplement of a clean algae-derived DHA is a wise insurance policy. Significant evidence suggests that a comparatively small amount of DHA and EPA can add health protection without the potential drawbacks of high dose fish oil capsules.19-21

 

 References:

1. Yurko-Mauro K. Cognitive and cardiovascular benefits of docosahexaenoic acid in aging and cognitive decline. Curr Alzheimer Res 2010;7:190-196.
2. Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimers Dement 2010.
3. Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS, Appel LJ. Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation 2002;106:2747-2757.
4. Crawford MA, Broadhurst CL. The role of docosahexaenoic and the marine food web as determinants of evolution and hominid brain development: the challenge for human sustainability. Nutr Health 2012;21:17-39.
5. Bradbury J. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients 2011;3:529-554.
6. Ryan AS, Astwood JD, Gautier S, et al. Effects of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on neurodevelopment in childhood: a review of human studies. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2010;82:305-314.
7. Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids. Altern Med Rev 2007;12:207-227.
8. Hoffman DR, Boettcher JA, Diersen-Schade DA. Toward optimizing vision and cognition in term infants by dietary docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid supplementation: a review of randomized controlled trials. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2009;81:151-158.
9. UCSB anthropologists finds high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk of Amerindian women. 2012. EurekAlert! http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-06/uoc--uaf060812.php. Accessed August 15, 2012.
10. Martin MA, Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ, et al. Fatty acid composition in the mature milk of Bolivian forager-horticulturalists: controlled comparisons with a US sample. Matern Child Nutr 2012;8:404-418.
11. Brenna JT, Varamini B, Jensen RG, et al. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:1457-1464.
12. Blasbalg TL, Hibbeln JR, Ramsden CE, et al. Changes in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the United States during the 20th century. Am J Clin Nutr 2011.
13. Harnack K, Andersen G, Somoza V. Quantitation of alpha-linolenic acid elongation to eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid as affected by the ratio of n6/n3 fatty acids. Nutr Metab 2009;6:8.
14. Arterburn LM, Hall EB, Oken H. Distribution, interconversion, and dose response of n-3 fatty acids in humans. Am J Clin Nutr 2006;83:1467S-1476S.
15. Fokkema MR, Brouwer DA, Hasperhoven MB, et al. Short-term supplementation of low-dose gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), or GLA plus ALA does not augment LCP omega 3 status of Dutch vegans to an appreciable extent. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2000;63:287-292.
16. Rice GE, Hammitt JK, Evans JS. A probabilistic characterization of the health benefits of reducing methyl mercury intake in the United States. Environmental science & technology 2010;44:5216-5224.
17. Virtanen JK, Rissanen TH, Voutilainen S, et al. Mercury as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 2007;18:75-85.
18. Myers RA, Worm B. Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Nature 2003;423:280-283.
19. Musa-Veloso K, Binns MA, Kocenas A, et al: Impact of low v. moderate intakes of long-chain n-3 fatty acids on risk of coronary heart disease. Br J Nutr 2011.
20. Thies F, Nebe-von-Caron G, Powell JR, et al. Dietary supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid, but not with other long-chain n-3 or n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, decreases natural killer cell activity in healthy subjects aged >55 y. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Mar;73(3):539-48.
21. Linus Pauling Institute: Essential Fatty Acids. http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/


 

Omega-3 fatty acids slow cellular aging

In coronary heart disease (CHD) patients, higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in the blood are associated with survival.1,2 Since patients with higher circulating omega-3s seemed to live longer, scientists wondered whether these patients were actually aging more slowly. 

They were able to indirectly measure rate of aging by measuring the telomere shortening rate in the patients’ white blood cells. Telomeres are regions of DNA at the ends of linear chromosomes – since telomeres are shortened during each cell division as DNA is replicated, telomere shortening is an indicator of aging at the DNA level. Faster telomere shortening means faster aging.

Blood levels of EPA and DHA and white blood cell telomere length were measured in CHD patients at baseline and again after 5 years.  The patients who had the lowest omega-3 levels had the fastest rates of telomere shortening, and those with the highest omega-3 levels had the slowest rates of telomere shortening. 

Omega-3s may in fact slow aging at the DNA level.

Omega-3 fatty acids, have several health benefits , and more benefits continue to be uncovered. In addition to slowing the aging process, in the past year alone the omega-3 fatty acid DHA has been suggested to promote cognitive development, prevent atherosclerotic plaque development, curb inflammation, and protect against cancer. 

Read more about the newly found health benefits of DHA, and why it may be both safer and more environmentally sound to use an algae-based DHA supplement, like my DHA Purity, instead of fish oil. I also still strongly recommend that certain seeds and nuts rich in the omega-3 ALA, such as flax, chia, hemp, or walnuts are important to be included in the diet as well for other documented health benefits. 

 

References:

1. Chattipakorn N et al. Cardiac mortality is associated with low levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the heart of cadavers with a history of coronary heart disease. Nutr Res. 2009 Oct;29(10):696-704.

2. Farzaneh-Far R et al. Association of marine omega-3 fatty acid levels with telomeric aging in patients with coronary heart disease. JAMA. 2010 Jan 20;303(3):250-7. 

Diet high in omega-6 fats increases risk for ulcerative colitis

 

Ulcerative colitis falls under the category of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). It is an autoimmune disease in which excessive inflammation kills cells in the lining of the colon, leaving ulcers behind. Ulcerative colitis is a chronic condition that commonly causes abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea, and it carries with it an increased risk of colorectal cancer. In some severe cases, the colon must be surgically removed. Clearly, this condition also causes a great deal of emotional trauma.1

Recent studies have identified dietary patterns that may predispose individuals to ulcerative colitis. High intake of fats, refined sugars, and fried potato products were positively associated with ulcerative colitis, and fruit consumption was found to be protective.2

Most recently, omega-6 fatty acids have been investigated. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning that we must obtain them from our diet for good health, but the typical American diet contains an excessive amount of omega-6, which can produce a pro-inflammatory environment in the body.

Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fat that is highly concentrated in red meat, cooking oils, and margarines. In the digestive system, linoleic acid is metabolized into arachidonic acid, which incorporates into cell membranes of the colon. When arachidonic acid is broken down further, its products are pro-inflammatory – these products are found in excess in the intestinal cells of patients with ulcerative colitis. For these reasons, scientists believed that excess linoleic acid might be linked to ulcerative colitis risk.

A prospective study of over 200,000 men and women in Europe found that the subjects who consumed the highest levels of omega-6 linoleic acid were 2.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The researchers also found a negative association between the omega-3 fatty acid DHA and ulcerative colitis – subjects in the highest level of DHA intake decreased their risk by 77%.3

Avoiding excess levels of linoleic acid is simply accomplished by eating a diet that is based on whole plant foods and limits animal products and added fats. A diet of natural whole foods provides us with omega-6 fatty acids in appropriate amounts - not in excess – producing an anti-inflammatory environment.

For those who already have ulcerative colitis, it is important to know that the condition can be improved and sometimes completely resolved with dietary changes – conventional treatment of IBD often includes immunosuppressive drugs with dangerous side effects. Specific dietary recommendations for sufferers of IBD are outlined in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease newsletter

References:

1. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ulcerativecolitis.html#cat59

2. Shah S. Dietary Factors in the Modulation of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Activity. MedGenMed 2007; 9(1):60

3. Tjonneland A et al. Linoleic acid, a dietary n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, and the aetiology of ulcerative colitis: a nested case-control study within a European prospective cohort study. IBD in EPIC Study Investigators. Gut. 2009 Dec;58(12):1606-11. Epub 2009 Jul 23.

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5B15S720091202

 

Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids work together to reduce coronary calcification

Coronary artery calcification is essentially the beginning of bone formation – except it’s happening in the arteries.1-2 Sound scary? It is. Calcification is associated with a 3-4 fold increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.3 And strangely enough, those who have vascular calcification usually have low bone density or even osteoporosis4 – hard arteries and weak bones??

Previous studies had tested the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) on the progression of arterial calcification, and they were found to be ineffective. These scientists were looking for another solution. Vitamin D deficiency is known to produce a risk of cardiovascular disease, but had not been investigated for effects on arterial calcification. Because of the protective effect of Vitamin D on both bone and cardiovascular tissues, scientists thought that Vitamin D might be a player in this complex interplay between bone precursors and blood vessel walls.

Subjects with no previous heart disease symptoms but a high coronary calcium score (CCS) were included in the study. They supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids  and sufficient Vitamin D3 to achieve greater than 50ng/ml serum levels of 25(OH) Vitamin D. The response of these subjects to these therapies varied 18 months later. About half saw a decrease in CCS, and about half experienced no change or a small increase in CCS. Also about half of the subjects experienced slowed atherosclerotic plaque growth.5

What do these results tell us? It is difficult to interpret these results because of the lack of a control (no treatment) group, but it definitely opens the door to more studies on the role of Vitamin D in coronary artery calcification. 

We also don’t know anything about the diets of the subjects of the study. A phytochemical-rich diet plus Vitamin D and omega-3 supplementation could have achieved dramatic improvements in calcium score!

For now, we can now tentatively add coronary calcification to the long list of detrimental consequences of Vitamin D deficiency. Our best protection against these consequences, in addition of course to a high nutrient diet, is a good Vitamin D supplement.

 

References:

1. Fitzpatrick LA et al. Endochondral bone formation in the heart: a possible mechanism of coronary calcification. Endocrinology. 2003 Jun;144(6):2214-9.

2. Aigner T et al. Expression of cartilage-specific markers in calcified and non-calcified

atherosclerotic lesions. Atherosclerosis. 2008 Jan;196(1):37-41. Epub 2007 Feb 28.

3. Rennenberg RJ et al. Vascular calcifications as a marker of increased cardiovascular risk: a meta-analysis. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2009;5(1):185-97. Epub 2009 Apr 8.

4. Hmamouchi I et al. Low bone mineral density is related to atherosclerosis in postmenopausal Moroccan women. BMC Public Health. 2009 Oct 14;9:388.

5. Davis W et al. Effect of a combined therapeutic approach of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, and increased serum 25 (OH) vitamin D on coronary calcium scores in asymptomatic adults. Am J Ther. 2009 Jul-Aug;16(4):326-32.

 

 

High fat intake - especially saturated fat - is associated with macular degeneration

 

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans over 60 years of age. This disease involves cell death in the macula of the eye, which has a high density of cone cells and is responsible for central vision.1 

A recent study published in the Archives of Ophthalmology2 investigated the relationship between fat intake and the presence of intermediate AMD 4-7 years later in over 1700 women, and found that some fats may benefit eye health while others may be damaging.

Total fat.Women aged 50-75 who consumed the highest proportion of calories from fat (43%) had the greatest risk of AMD – 70% higher odds than those with the lowest proportion of calories from fat (21%). As the authors stated,

"High-fat diets might be a marker for diets that are poor in many micronutrients that could protect against age-related macular degeneration.”3

They then looked further into the associations between specific types of dietary fat and AMD.

Saturated fats are detrimental when it comes to heart disease and cancer, so these results are no surprise - saturated fats showed the greatest association with AMD – 60% increased odds of AMD in women who consumed the greatest amounts. Monounsaturated fats, which are present in nuts, seeds, and avocados, were associated with a lower prevalence of the disease.

The associations between polyunsaturated fats and AMD are more difficult to interpret – the authors reported that both omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids were associated with a two-fold risk of AMD. But don’t overreact and throw away your walnuts and flaxseeds - the intakes of omega-3 and -6 in this study were highly correlated to one another, making it difficult to discern the effects of one from the other. Also, a 12-year study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last month found that people at high risk for AMD were less likely to develop the disease if they had a greater intake of omega-3 fats.4 The authors of the current study hypothesized that excessive omega-6 fatty acid intake may influence AMD by promoting inflammation that can contribute to retinal damage. Vegetable oils, processed foods, and animal products contain high levels of omega-6 fats – with that in mind, the authors also stress that the associations that they found likely do not represent effects of only the types of fat, but the cumulative effects of the all the compounds in the foods that contain each type of fat.3

The evidence is overwhelming that a Nutritarian diet-style, with raw seeds and nuts as the major fat source, and the high exposure to phytochemicals and carotenoids is the healthiest way to eat. Can you imagine all the personal medical tragedies that could be prevented?   It would sure put a lot of drug companies and doctors out of business.

 

References:

1. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/maculardegeneration.html

2. Parekh N et al. Association Between Dietary Fat Intake and Age-Related Macular Degeneration in the Carotenoids in Age-Related Eye Disease Study (CAREDS). An Ancillary Study of the Women's Health Initiative. Arch Ophthalmol. 2009;127(11):1483-1493.

3. http://www.medpagetoday.com/Ophthalmology/GeneralOphthalmology/16950

4. Sangiovanni JP et al. {omega}-3 Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and 12-y incidence of neovascular age-related macular degeneration and central geographic atrophy: a prospective cohort study from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Oct 7. [Epub ahead of print]

 

Q & A: Balancing Your Omega Fats

We all know fat can be bad, like trans-fat. Trans-fat raises LDL or bad cholesterol and also lowers HDL or good cholesterol, but still, many fats are very healthy, like omega fats, found in stuff like avocados. Here’s a quick Q & A about balancing omega fats from Dr. Fuhrman’s member center:

Question: My dim understanding is that our diet and consequently our blood and our tissues should contain some ideal ratio of omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats, such as a 1 to 1 or 1 to 2 ratio of ecicosapentanoic acid (EPA) to arachidonic acid (AA). So the fact that a blood test would detect some AA is not necessarily bad, so long as the test detects a roughly equal amount of EPA, is this correct?

Dr. Fuhrman: Yes, you need some AA. Only in excess is it a problem. Some of fats are more pro-inflammatory, but it is a question of balance. When you eat a diet rich in greens with about half seeds and nuts in a 1 to 1 ratio, with some supplemental DHA if you do not eat fish regularly, then you get the right balance of fatty acids, obsessing to get a 1 to 1 or even a 2 to 1 ratio results in food paranoia.

Image credit: thegrocer*

Pomegranates Slow Prostate Cancer

More good news for pomegranates! A new study in The Journal of Urology found pomegranate juice slows the doubling time of prostate specific antigen (PSA). PSA’s are used to track and diagnosis prostate cancer. For the study, participants, 48 men with rising PSA levels after surgery or radiotherapy, who drank one glass of pomegranate juice each day, had longer doubling times during a 56 month follow-up than men not drinking pomegranate juice; Nutra Ingredients investigates.

And last week, nutrients found pomegranates called polyphenols were shown to reduce cell inflammation, helping to prevent heart disease and diabetes. And other research revealed test subjects drinking pomegranate juice actually had better PSA scores.

In March, a report on fish linked omega-3 fatty acids with lower risk of prostate cancer. Dr. Fuhrman sells a DHA supplement that provides essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Image credit: нσвσ

United States Set to Block Genetically Modified Food...

The Office of the Inspector General, which audits various branches of the government, has warned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to closely monitor genetically modified (GM) foods coming from foreign countries. Meaning, the U.S. may block GM crops, animals and rice imported from countries such as China, India and Brazil, where research on genetically modified foods has intensified; via NewScientist.

But just last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration praised genetically modified animals. And will NOT require meat from GM animals to be labeled for consumers. I guess there’s a double-standard. American-made food monstrosities are exempt.

We love futzing with nature. Do we really need food coloring made from crushed beetles and pigs engineered to produce omega-3 fatty acids! Yuck.

Image credit: Briebanofsky

DHA Helps Brain Development of Premature Girls

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals increased DHA intake in premature babies improved the neurodevelopment of girls. Scientists gave breastfeeding mothers a DHA supplement or a placebo. The breast milk of the supplement group had .85% concentration of total fatty acids. The placebo group was only .25%. Researchers also tested two varieties of baby formula, one with a 1.1% concentration of total fatty acids and the other with 0.42%. At 18 months, infants were given standard developmental tests and those on high DHA diets scored 5 points higher than infants on a normal DHA diet and had less mental delay; via Martek Biosciences Corporation.

DHA or docosahexaenoic acid is an essential nutrient for optimal brain. Our brains are 50% fat! And children's diets are notoriously low in short-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which the body converts into DHA. DHA deficiency has been linked to dyslexia, depression, schizophrenia and other mental disorders. But according to Dr. Fuhrman, most people can make sufficient DHA from omega-3 fats. Omega-3s are found in walnuts, flax seeds, green vegetables, algae and fish that eat the algae.

And Dr. Fuhrman sells his own DHA supplement called DHA Purity. It’s veggie-derived, made from microalgae. Microalgae refers to phytoplankton, microphytes and planktonic algae.

Image credit: Eimper.Blogspot.com

ADHD Drugs Give Kids Hallucinations!

According to a new study in Pediatrics many drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause hallucinations in children, even when taken as directed. Researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviewed 49 clinical studies, conducted by pharmaceutical companies, and determined ADHD drugs can cause psychosis in some children, specifically worms, bugs and snakes crawling all over them. The list of medications included Ritalin, Focalin XR, Adderall XR, Daytrana, Concerta, Strattera, Celltech and Metadate CD; Reuters investigates.

My goodness, how many Scrabble points is all that worth! Now, Dr. Fuhrman is no fan of bombarding kids with drugs for ADHD, calling these medications unnecessary. Instead, he recommends a nutrient-dense diet, devoid of processed foods and packed with healthy foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and brain-building omega-3 fatty acids. And avoid food dyes too! They’ve been linked to ADHD.

Oh, and it was recently discovered drinking a lot of instant coffee causes hallucinations too.

Image credit: jsarcadia